Events do rush by us in a blur, I know, but let’s not abandon Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 UN speech to the graveyard of history without one last backward glance. It was, after all, billed by the President as a conclusive intelligence briefing on exactly how Saddam Hussein has been concealing his weapons of mass destruction, and how he’s hand in glove with Al Qaeda.

Now, when the Commander in Chief states publicly that his Secretary of State will deliver the goods, we can be safe in assuming he’s been assured that, yes, the US intelligence “community” has indeed got the goods. But less than a week after Powell’s speech it looked as though its major claims were at best speculative and at worst outright distortions, some of them derided in advance by UN chief inspector Hans Blix.

There was the supposed transporter of biotoxins that turned out to be a truck from the health department; the sinisterly enlarged test ramp for long-range missiles that was nothing of the sort; the suspect facility that had recently been cleared by the UN inspection teams; the strange eavesdropped conversations that could just as well have been Iraqi officers discussing how to hide stills for making bootleg whiskey. The promoter of the Iraq/Al Qaeda link, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, turns out to be an imaginative liar trying to get a prison sentence commuted; and the terror cell Ansar al-Islam, a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists violently opposed to Saddam and operating out of Kurdish territory.

A few days later Powell cited Osama bin Laden’s latest tape as confirming that Saddam and Al Qaeda are in cahoots. Actually it’s mostly a vivid account, which has the ring of truth, of how bin Laden and his men in their Tora Bora foxholes survived ferocious US bombing with minimal casualties. He concludes by urging all Muslims “to pull up your pant legs for jihad” against the Great Satan. Of Saddam and the Baath, he says, “The socialists are infidels wherever they are, either in Baghdad or Aden. Such war which may take place these days is similar to the war between Muslims and Romans, when the interests of the Muslims came along with the interests of the Persians, who both fought against the Romans.”

And of course there was the British intelligence report sent by Tony Blair to Powell, who commended it in his UN speech as particularly “fine.” The report turned out to be a series of plagiarisms from old articles from Jane’s and from a paper on Iraqi politics written by a student called Ibrahim al-Marashi, at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

The Marashi plagiarism represents an instructive parable on how “intelligence” reports actually get put together to fulfill a political agenda. From some enterprising work by freelance reporter Kenneth Rapoza, who worked on the Iraq Dossier story for the Boston Globe, it emerges that Marashi himself comes from a Shiite family in Baltimore. He has never visited Iraq and is keen to see Saddam toppled by US invasion.

Marashi’s essay was published last September in the Middle East Review of International Affairs, a magazine run by the GLORIA Center (acronym for Global Research in International Affairs) in Herzliya, Israel. Its director is Barry Rubin, who was a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a hawkishly pro-Israel think tank, itself a spinoff of AIPAC. Rubin is part of a coterie that includes Daniel Pipes, Michael Ledeen and Richard Perle–who have been pressing for a US attack on Iraq. Marashi told Rapoza that the documents on which he based his paper came from Kanan Makiya, a well-known Iraqi exile and proponent of invasion favored by the State Department. Makiya claims to have some 4 million pages of documents seized in northern Iraq after Desert Storm.

So here we have a politically inspired document, spliced together by a Shiite student, published by an Israeli think tank hot for war, swiped off the web by Blair’s harried minions and given to Powell as a masterpiece of British intelligence collection from MI6. Quite aside from the welcome damage done to Powell’s credibility and to the war party in general, the saga vividly reminds us of just how much rubbish has been served up to the American people in the guise of reliable “intelligence.” Remember how, amid the buildup to the Gulf War, the Pentagon invoked satellite photos of 265,000 Iraqi troops massed to invade Saudi Arabia?

Jean Heller, a journalist from Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, persuaded her paper to buy two photos at $1,600 each from a Russian commercial satellite. No troops showed up in the photos. “You could see the planes sitting wingtip to wingtip in Riyadh airport,” Heller says, “but there wasn’t any sign of a quarter of a million Iraqi troops sitting in the middle of the desert.”

The ridicule now being showered on Powell’s Iraq Dossier won’t slow the production of these absurd documents or hinder the endless flourishing of supposedly conclusive satellite photography or communications intercepts. If war does come, we can be sure there will be repetitions of the “misinterpretations” and “tragic errors” of the 1991 onslaught.

When my brother Patrick drove from Amman to Baghdad back at the end of the 1991 war he passed the hulks of oil tankers bombed to bits under the claim they were mobile Scud launchers. The single biggest atrocity of that war was the US bombing of the Amariya shelter in Baghdad. The Pentagon claimed it was a top-secret military command center. It wasn’t. Absent its intended occupants, university professors, technocrats, ordinary Iraqi mothers and children had taken shelter there. Just another intelligence screwup, with several hundred dead mothers and kids as the price.

And yes, we are in the wake of the greatest intelligence failure in American history, for which not one intelligence head rolled. Instead, they gave the CIA even more money; and yes, its grateful chief, George Tenet, is sitting beside Powell in the UN Security Council. He should have been too ashamed to show his face in public. At least “M,” in real life a closet case who liked to haunt low movie houses in search of trade, had the grace not to show his face in public.